Thursday, December 9, 2010

Siem Reap - Khmer cuisine

Cambodian food, or Khmer cuisine, hasn’t really excited my palate like the awesome temple ruins have. Walking along long corridors at Angkor Wat with carved murals of life as it was between the 10th and 12th centuries in Cambodia, one cannot help but think about what could have been if this Kingdom had not been lost to the many wars throughout the centuries. Only as recent as 1998, when Pol Pot finally passed on, did this Kingdom really open up and repair itself, something which it is still doing.  The destruction is still visible, especially of land-mine victims, who are trying to move on with their lives, some sadly as beggars, others as buskers, or more happily as sculptors in local Artisan institutions, etc.

The comparative lack of investments in agriculture is also obvious. While similar in climate to the rest of the region, with produce of similar varieties, the quality is unfortunately not as desirable as its rich neighbour, Thailand, which has some of the best produce in the world.

With a relatively small population in Siem Reap and the province which it sits in at just under 1M people, there’s a disproportionately large number of westerners who have decided to settle here, especially the French, a relic of the times when Cambodia was under French colonial rule. The result is naturally French influenced cuisine, and just like in Vietnam, the baguette rules here too. Locals seem to love it stuffed with a locally made pate, and fresh vegetables, which I was unfortunately too “chicken” to want to risk.

Going local at designated tourist stops is considered safe. However, street food is really not something that the guides recommend you do unless you want to risk your vacation or bringing home a souvenir you hadn’t intended to.

As for royal Khmer cuisine, the locals say it doesn’t exist. What does exist is “fine” Khmer cuisine, which essentially internationalized Khmer food presented in a western way. It’s really quite decent but for fans of Thai and Vietnamese food, there’s not much of a “wow” factor. Garlic and shallots are employed more overtly in Cambodia and so tend to cover up too much of the natural tastes of the food. What I do like is Kampot pepper – such a versatile spice, that it even went with a dessert I had.  Brilliant!  Of course, basil (similar to the Thai variety) is also widely used, lifting a lot of the dishes from their sole dimension.

Overall, there is now enough of an international crowd and so consequently, cuisine that you can get in touristy Siem Reap is also international.  But don’t expect big city type standards, it’s not that kind of place, yet.  Perhaps with progress, there will be enough affluence to demand it.  For now, just come and be wowed by a rich part of history that this little town can certainly boast of.

Anyhow, more to come, of memorable and perhaps not-so-memorable meals, complete with photos, over my 5-day, once-in-a-lifetime trip to Siem Reap.  Stay tuned.

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